Vivian Heldon (Jan Sterling) has a problem. Her married boyfriend is giving her the cold shoulder and Vivian, who is pregnant, wants to discuss the situation with him. She tells him to meet her at her place of work; a bar in Boston called “The Grass Skirt”. When he doesn’t show she decides to track him down.
In the bar is a rather drunk Henry Shanway (Marshall Thompson) who is drowning his sorrows. Henry’s wife Grace (Sally Forrest) is in the hospital after having a miscarriage. Vivian, being a forceful woman, scoops up Henry and deposits him in his car’s passenger seat to sleep it off. Vivian starts the long drive to Cape Cod where her boyfriend lives and works. When she gets to the Cape she calls him from a phone booth at a diner. She tells him she is on the Cape and that he better meet her.
As she is hanging up the phone Henry comes into the diner wanting to know why he is all the out on the Cape. Vivian hustles him out of the diner and into the car. When Henry complains and insists on turning around. She tricks him into getting out of the car. She then takes off in his car leaving him abandoned. Henry has no choice but to start walking back to Boston. Further on down the road Vivian pulls off near some dunes and waits for her boyfriend. When he gets there he walks up to the car and greets Vivian with a bullet. He then dumps her naked body in the ocean and dumps the car in a pond further away.
When Vivian’s body finally washes up on shore it is no more than a skeleton. Barnstable police Lieutenant Pete Moralas (Ricardo Montalban) is assigned the case. His investigation takes him to Dr. McAdoo (Bruce Bennett) at the Harvard Medical School. Using the new science of forensics Dr. McAdoo and Pete team up to unravel who the victim is and how she died.
When the car is finally found in the pond the license plate traces back to Henry. Unfortunately for Henry all signs point to him as the murderer. His lying about meeting Vivian doesn’t help the situation any. Henry is arrested and charged with murder. Although Pete believes that Henry is his man there are a couple loose threads that bother him. Unless Pete can come up with a better suspect and some proof Henry may end up sentenced to death.
“Mystery Street” was released in 1950 and was directed by John Sturges. It is a mystery and a film noir. One of the things the film is noted for is its wonderful cinematography done by John Alton. Reportedly the movie is based on the death of Irene Perry in 1940 in Massachusetts. It was nominated for an Academy Award for best story.
The film was shot on location in Boston and Cape Cod. To a certain extent the movie is also a police procedural. The film is noted for it being the first to incorporated forensic science in the plot of the film. It is also known for being one of the first to cast a Latino as the lead of a film.
One of the highlights of the movie is the characters. Elsa Lanchester as the alcoholic perpetually nosy landlady is spectacular. Always slightly tipsy and deviously selfish she wastes no opportunity to prosper even at the detriment to others. She steals every scene she’s in. Montalban is also good as the tenacious small town police detective. He is frustrated at not being able to let the case go even though he believes he caught the killer. He also doesn’t like the idea that Grace could believe so strongly in her husband without any evidence to the contrary. Her absolute belief in his innocence makes him question his absolute belief in Henry's guilt. Then there are the differences between Morales and Dr. McAdoo. They are opposites in every way but like gears of a clock they mesh together to make the investigation run perfectly.
It is a perfect example of the noir style of film. The suspense is taut and the atmosphere is sharp and slightly eerie. The cinematography by John Alton is beautiful. It is probably my favorite film noir movie.